The Blue Screen of Death used to be as ubiquitous as finding bed bugs at a grungy motel. And although they don’t happen as often in Windows 7, 8 and 8.1, these new systems still aren’t immune.
Everyone knows that sickly, nauseated feeling that sits in the bottom of your stomach when it happens: There you are; blithely clicking through web pages, switching between applications and checking your email when suddenly, without warning, the mouse cursor freezes.
That’s always a bad sign.
Then the entire screen transforms into a great sea of blue with white text floating on top that’s about as readable as hieroglyphics. To top it off, there’s no warning before your hapless computer succumbs to the Blue Screen of Death. A frozen mouse or keyboard may be a harbinger of doom but it doesn’t always result in the infamous Blue Screen.
In this guide, I’m going ameliorate your fears by explaining:
- Exactly what the Blue Screen of Death is
- Why it happens
- What you can do to minimize the chances of it reoccurring
What is the Blue Screen of Death?
The Blue Screen of Death made its official inauguration almost two decades ago with Windows 3.1x. Since the embryonic stages of Windows, it’s been called everything from a Stop Screen, BSOD, and a motley of invectives ending in ker, it, and hole.
The Blue Screen background is invariably navy blue (or in Windows 8 and 8.1 an uplifting, happier, cerulean hue). The screen always displays cryptic text concerning memory locations and values.
The cardinal point is that the Blue Screen of Death does not necessarily portend hard drive failure nor does it suggest something more egregious like a computer meltdown (actually it technically could indicate an overheating hardware component but I’ll get to possible causes next).
Typically, the only way to recover from Blue Screens is to reboot. Sometimes your computer will automatically reboot after a few seconds but the result is the same: your work gets interrupted and any unsaved changes are lost.
But why does this happen and what can we do to prevent it?
What causes the Blue Screen of Death?
When you think of “Blue Screen” think “hardware”.
When Firefox freezes it doesn’t take down the entire computer that’s because application crashes are usually software related. Hardware problems are more nefarious and are most likely either related to bad drivers or faulty memory modules – but ultimately, the true BSOD causes are varied.
Analyze the dumps
One clue to extricating yourself from your Blue Screen blues is located right on the Blue Screen message itself.
By default, when Windows encounters a Blue Screen, it reboots and dumps the contents of memory to a file for future analysis. Depending on your version of Windows, the dump is either a mini-dump, which is a concise copy of all data contained in RAM, or it’s a complete dump which is a snapshot of everything in RAM.
In either case, you can analyze dumps using BlueScreenView or WinDbg which will display the list of function calls made seconds before the Blue Screen hit. This list is known as a stack trace and can be helpful; however, I should note that it is about as easy to decipher as a programming in pure binary.
So let’s think about other possible causes…
Use your critical thinking skills
I’m going to backtrack a bit and speak less technically. Instead of doing the digital wizardry I mentioned above just ask yourself this simple question:
What was the last thing I was doing before my computer Blue Screened?
- Did I just plug in my external Hard drive?
- Yank my iPhone free from the USB port while it was synchronizing?
- Install a printer driver?
Try to think about what you were doing moments before the crash (I sound like a psychologist counseling accident victims).
But seriously, if you can identify your last action or set of actions (or even the last action of whoever was using your computer) then you’ll be a few steps closer to finding the root cause.
- Did your PC crash after your dad left your work desk?
- Or perhaps the PC succumbed to a virus after your wife inserted her infected thumb drive?
Doing the hard work of rumination will save you hours and hours of pain. Really fight to think through who was the last person to use your computer and then keep asking him or her questions until you can narrow down on a potential Blue Screen cause.
Google the STOP Code
In addition to critical thinking, pay attention to the STOP code. This arcane code usually resembles an arbitrary string of letters and numbers and it appears on a line by itself. It looks like gibberish but it can actually point you to a solution if you copy and paste it into your favorite search engine.
In the example above they key pieces of information to search for are the STOP description: PFN_LIST_CORRUPT and code: 0x00000004e.
For example, I just typed that hexadecimal STOP code into Google and received several propitious hits:
Sometimes you’ll see a file that ends in .sys on the Blue Screen. This is also an excellent keyword for search because it often points to an offending software driver that either needs to be removed or updated.
Here’s what the Blue Screen of Death looks like in Windows 8. I received this ugly DRIVER_IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL message after upgrading my Windows 7 Professional box to Windows 8.
Windows rebooted itself and then proceeded to fix the problem by itself.
Windows ultimately reverted the changes and rolled the updated back
Embrace the Event Viewer
If the computer rebooted too quickly to catch the STOP code, try logging into Windows again. Then, when the operating system loads, click Start and type:
If you’re using Windows 8 or 8.1 just type from the Start Screen or jump into the Desktop and press Windows Key + x + v.
The System Log in the Event Viewer may help you figure out the solution. Pay attention to all the levels marked as Error and see if you can match up the timestamps with the time of the Blue Screen.
Had my machine actually blue screened, I would see relevant errors around the time of crash.
5 ways to ward of Blue Screens
It’s hard to offer a solution when the cause is nebulous but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to minimize the chances of a future occurrence.
1 Update, update, update.
Run Windows Update to make sure all the latest critical drivers and service packs are installed. Microsoft frequently releases patches known to address major software problems; one of them may be related to your Blue Screen. To get started click Start and type:
Secondly, make sure your hardware drivers are current.
Windows updates may take care of this but you can always spot check your devices to update individual components. For example, if you noticed your computer keeps Blue Screening after installing a new webcam open the Device Manager by pressing Windows Key + pause/break or if you don’t have the pause/break key click Start and type:
When the Device Manager appears, right click the device and choose Update Driver Software...
If you don’t see that option, double click the device, click the Driver tab and choose the Update Driver button.
2 Run a free Diagnostics Test
Check to see if your computer manufacturer has a free hardware diagnostic utility.
For example, on a Dell computer, you can reboot and press F12 several times to open the One-Time Boot menu. From here, you can select Diagnostics and start a comprehensive hardware test. Alternatively, if the pre-boot environment makes your hair bristle, just head over to the Dell PC Diagnostics page and do a Complete test.
Keep in mind this can take over an hour to finish so make sure you apportion your time appropriately.
3. Help! My PC keeps rebooting
If your computer keeps restarting after Blue Screening but you need more time to write down the technical details like the STOP code, description and .sys files then you can disable automatic restart on system failure by clicking Start and entering this:
advanced system settings
Choose Settings under Startup and Recovery
And uncheck Automatically Restart under System failure.
Click OK. Now if your computer panics with another Blue Screen – it won’t reboot itself. This will give you the time you need to take a picture of the Blue Screen or write down the important details for search.
4. Does the computer Blue Screen in Safe Mode?
Booting your computer to Safe Mode is a good test because it forces the PC to load a limited version of Windows which only contains essential files. If your computer runs swiftly in Safe Mode but not in Normal Mode then there’s probably an application or driver in memory that’s putting your system on the fritz. Safe Mode can help you zero in on a solution because it can instantly let you know if the problem is hardware or software related.
5. Check for malware
Malware, short for malicious software, can do weird things to computers. Although I’ve never seen or heard of a virus directly invoking a Blue Screen it certainly isn’t impossible; that’s why I suggest using a free, high-quality antivirus scanner to expunge your system of the bad guys.
The Bottom Line
Blue Screens will happen but when they do you don’t have to panic.
The experience can be disconcerting but fortunately there are a few things you can do to address BSODs. Most BSODs are triggered by bad hardware or corrupt drivers. You can usually find the root cause by reflecting on the last system event before the crash, analyzing the memory dumps with WinDgb, searching for relevant STOP codes and digging through the Event Viewer for clues.
Moreover, you can usually stymie Blue Screens by keeping your operating system and drivers updated, running free hardware diagnostics, booting to safe mode and scanning for viruses.
If you have a Blue Screen once every year or two then it’s not a major concern; however, if you get them more than once a week then you should be concerned.
Let me know your experience below and I’ll be happy to help you find and analyze your crash dumps.